Time-traveling with the King
The buzz on Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63, is that it’s about a man who goes back in time to save JFK. It’s true; that is the mission undertaken by King’s hero, 35-year-old high school teacher Jake Epping. But to a careful reader, it quickly becomes clear that this is actually a novel about falling in love: first with a time period, and then with an awkward, tall librarian named Sadie.
Jake learns about this portal to the past from his friend Al, the owner of the local diner-slash-time-machine. Al had hoped to thwart Lee Harvey Oswald on his own, but had to return to the present when he became ill with lung cancer. (One of the quirks of King’s time-travel is that no matter how long you stay, you only lose two minutes in the present.) So Al boots an unbelieving Jake out through the back door of the diner’s storeroom, into a warm September day in 1958. From the moment Jake steps up to a soda counter and orders a root beer, he is hooked on the past. “It was . . . full. Tasty all the way through,” Jake thinks. Like the apple in the Garden of Eden, the drink has revealed new possibilities. With his 21st-century life off the rails, Jake decides he has nothing to lose by taking up Al’s quest.
In Stephen King's latest novel, a man goes back in time to prevent the Kennedy Assassination.
Since Jake arrives in the past in 1958, there’s a lot of ground laid before the novel arrives at the titular date of the JFK assassination. Despite the somewhat leisurely pace, the reader is entertained by creepy details about the Oswald family and interludes with 1960s-era spying equipment, which run alongside Jake’s gradual embrace of the small Texas town where he takes a job at the high school. He meets Sadie; he is mothered by the school’s stern-but-soft principal; he directs the school play. As time passes, his 1960s life becomes more real to Jake than his life in the 21st century. Still, as 1963 approaches, he is unable to forget his mission.
Through his depictions of 1950s and ’60s life, it’s clear that King has a deep affection for the time period in which he grew up. Even so, he’s not blind to its problems, portraying the bad smells in the air near factories with no EPA regulations, the racial strife and the poverty. His vision of Dallas is particularly sinister; King compares it to Derry, Maine, his iconic fictional city that just isn’t right—one of several nods to his 1986 novel, It.
This new novel stands out from King’s oeuvre because a villain is not immediately apparent. There’s no Plymouth with a mind of its own (Christine), no killer virus (The Stand)—there’s not even an unbalanced parent (The Shining, Carrie) or crazed fan (Misery). But the adversary in 11/22/63 is perhaps King’s most implacable force yet: history itself. Oswald, who is a lackluster bad guy to say the least, is merely its tool, one of many. History, as Al explains to Jake early on, does not want to be changed—“I felt like a man trying to fight his way out of a nylon stocking. It would give a little, then snap back just as tight as before.”—and the past throws up terrifying obstacles to those who would try. This eerie quality further complicates the typical questions about fate vs. self-determination that time-travel stories raise.
Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme has already optioned 11/22/63 for film. Though perhaps less cinematic than some of King’s other works, this quietly moving and thought-provoking book, with its unexpectedly poignant ending, is a compelling tale.